My Neighbor, My Enemy : problems of coexistence

'Mon voisin, mon ennemi', Vojtěch Lavička (à gauche) et David Matásek

In this week’s Panorama :a play at Prague’s National Theatre highlights the problems of coexistence between ethnic Czechs and the Roma minority, Karlovy Vary protesting against too many foreign language signs, and, Czech politicians make headlines from here to Belgrade.

'My neighbor,  my enemy' - Vojtěch Lavička,  David Matásek
An unexpectedly topical theatre performance premiered in Prague’s National theatre on Wednesday night. “My neighbor, my enemy” reflects on the problematic coexistence between ethnic Czechs and the Romany minority and tries to get to the roots of existing hostilities. It is part of the international theatre project “Emergency Entrance“, sponsored by the EU and its cast is a mix of professional actors from the National Theatre ensemble and amateur actors from the ranks of the Romany minority. One of the latter is Vojtěch Lavička a violinist from the popular Romany group He explains what the play is about.

“It is hard to define it properly. I would say it is a “serious cabaret” of sorts. There is a quarrel, a fight, laughter and tears. There’s a bit of everything – the only thing I cannot promise you is a happy end. We are trying to be as realistic as possible, this is more like a documentary or political theatre performance –so there is no happy end.”

Paradoxically, one of the National Theatre actors in the play – David Matásek – one performed in the controversial band Orlík whose racist lyrics are a far cry from his present role. Vojtěch Lavička says he’s happy to let bygones be bygones.

'My neighbor,  my enemy' - Vojtěch Lavička,  David Matásek
“For me it is not a problem, and neither is it for him, I think. That was twenty years ago and we all have things in our past that we are not particularly proud of. So I haven’t pressed him about this or referred to it. I think that even back then the boys didn’t really stop to think about the implications of what they were singing. And they broke up quite soon. So it is not a problem for me. Today David Matásek is a very intelligent person and from what I hear he is full of praise for us Romany actors.”

The play which has been in the pipeline for months could not have come at a better time. Several incidents of racially motivated violence in the north have sparked anti-Romany protests, street demonstrations and debates about the problems of coexistence. Vojtěch Lavička says that the crisis does not surprise him.

“You know it was not hard to predict this. The social situation is deteriorating, people are out of work, short of money, worried about the future and at a time like this it is natural they should look around for someone to put the blame on. Romanies are an easy target –they already have a bad reputation so it is easy for people to point a finger and say “it’s all their fault”. I think that this is behind the unrest in Šluknov, Rumburk and Varnsdorf – people needed to lay the blame on someone and they found a scapegoat in the Roma.”

Anti-Romany protests in Varnsdorf,  photo: CTK
The play’s authors say they do not intend to offer quick and easy solutions – they just want to make the audience think about the reasons why many otherwise tolerant members of society believe that the Roma minority is hard to educate or even “generally less intelligent”, why seventy per cent of Roma children attend special schools or why most ethnic Czechs feel afraid when they find themselves in the company of a group of Roma.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
Visitors to the West Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary might find themselves slightly at a loss –especially if they are not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. Signs providing directions, ads and even menus are in Russian. News-stands offer a wide variety of Russian language newspapers, the sound of Russian echoes in the streets and signs in Russian are so prominent they might leave visitors wondering whether they hadn’t ended up in the wrong country. The west Bohemian spa town once favored by the Russian tsar Peter the Great has become a Mecca for Russian investors and summer visitors. The Russian nuveau riche have bought houses and opened businesses in Karlovy Vary where they spend at least part of the year. The spa town now has over 3,500 permanent Russian-speaking residents and tens of thousands more arrive every summer to take the cure, attend the Karlovy Vary Film Festival or simply spend time with friends. There are Russian-owned hotels, restaurants, fitness clubs and a wide range of other services ready to cater to their needs. While initially the locals cracked jokes about the “Russian invasion” of their home town, it now appears that their patience with the ever-present signs in Cyrillic is running thin. Jan Kopál is the town hall’s spokesman:

“We have been receiving complaints from the locals who are unhappy about the fact that the town is plastered with foreign-language ads and signs – particularly in Russian.”

The issue was widely debated in the local paper and the town hall decided to act – demanding a regulation that would make it compulsory to feature a Czech language version of all foreign signs. The town’s mayor says this seems like a logical request.

“What we would like to see is for the signs and ads to appear primarily in the Czech language and then of course whatever other foreign language is required.”

The town hall has proposed a change of legislation which would make it compulsory to feature signs in Czech along all foreign-language signs so that the locals who do not read Russian –or understand German – do not feel like foreigners in their own home town.

TOP 09 lower house deputy Rudolf Chlad has backed the cause and thrown his weight behind a bill which would make it compulsory for a Czech version of all signs and adverts to be featured in letters as big as the original text. He says that the bill, which is soon to be debated by the lower house, is similar to legislation adopted in many other European states.

Alexej Ruzejnikov who represents the Russian minority in Karlovy Vary says that whatever the outcome of the vote the Cyrillic signs must stay put.

“The signs in Russian must be allowed to remain. This is about business and enterprise and it is only natural that entrepreneurs want to attract as many clients as possible especially at a time when business is slow.”

This is a strong argument – the town’s Russian entrepreneurs are not targeting the locals –they are tailoring their business to rich Russian residents and visitors who appreciate an invitation or menu in their own language. If Russian entrepreneurs in Karlovy Vary chose to feature a second language version it tends to be in English rather than Czech. If Parliament approves the proposed measure late this year or early next year entrepreneurs will have a strong motivation to feature Czech signs as well - a fine of up to 5 million crowns.

Jiří Krátký,  photo: CTK
And finally two Czech politicians made headlines this week – the Czech foreign minister when he was caught napping during a security conference in Serbia and Social Democrat Deputy Jiří Krátký when he told the Czech lower house he was against extending a parliament debate late into the night because only “whores and thieves” worked at this time. While no one dared to challenge – or wake – the Czech foreign minister in Belgrade, deputy Krátký got a sound lecture from the prime minister in Parliament, reprimanding him for being “a lazy boor”. Addressing the house, the prime minister reminded him of the hundreds of thousands of people who work evening and night shifts in hospitals, factories and the transport sector. All things considered, deputy Krátký would have done less damage had he kept his mouth shut and taken a late-evening nap.